Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Crisis of High Self-Esteem

Hmm. I suppose the problem with so few comments is that I no longer have a sense of my audience. Or perhaps even "audience." The absence of feedback breeds a sense of isolation. Or, one can't help interpreting the seeming indifference as a form of feedback. As in silence, the deafening kind.

Suppose you're on stage and pour your heart into a performance. You stare out into the darkness and can't hear any reaction. No one cheers. No one boos. Rather, just silence. One such experience would be a little strange, but repeated ones would start to get eery. And why is this guy up on stage? Is he delusional? Or just pathetic?

I can picture a Twilight Zone episode along these lines. The houselights dim at the commencement of the performance. After increasingly desperate attempts to get a reaction from the audience, our protagonist runs over to the control panel and frantically switches on the lights. He looks out and sees... an audience full of grinning skeletons. The joke's on him.

Am I complaining? Nah. Just wondering. Just typing the first thing that pops into the head, like any other morning.

An added concern is the uniqueness of the blog. Out of the millions of other blogs out there, I feel I am justified in suspecting that there is no other like it. But uniqueness cuts both ways, especially for someone who isn't particularly self-confident. If we are different from the crowd and people don't respond, the default human reaction is to ask What's wrong with me?

In fact, one thing that persistently amazes me about this world is the number of people with far more self-confidence than I will ever have, but with so little reason. Let me be clear: I'm not complaining about low-self esteem. Rather, I think my estimation of myself is pretty objective. What I don't understand is why most everyone in public life seems so lacking in this objectivity.

One could cite thousands of examples from politics, the media, entertainment, and academia, but why, for example, is this Ocasio-Cortez person so preternaturally confident? Why is she not dying of shame? I wouldn't be able to leave the house.

Really, it's just another example of our national crisis of self-esteem. There is waaaaay too much of it. Which is by no means an argument for low self-esteem. Rather, for accurate, which is to say, objective self-esteem. Everyone is precious, but few are special.

Let's say you are a musician, of which there are millions in the world. How many of these are actually special? Certainly fewer than one percent.

Everyone and every skill is distributed along a Bell Curve. If I remember my statistics class correctly, in a normally distributed Bell Curve -- say, vis-a-vis IQ -- 68% of the population will fall one standard deviation above or below the mean, and 95% will be within two standard deviations. 2% are significantly above average (three deviations), while only .1% are waaaay above average (four).

If you are in that .1%, you are entitled to call yourself special. But only in the particular skill being measured! For example, Einstein was no doubt among the .1% in math and physics. What about politics? In that case, he is among the 99.9%.

Labron James? .1% in basketball. Everything else? 99.99.

As you may have noticed from the sidebar, I read a lot of books about musicians and the music industry. I love reading about .1% musicians and their creative process.

But I am also struck at how there seems to be a kind of cosmic compensation at work, such that these musical geniuses and visionaries are not only average in other areas, but often totally dysfunctional. If they weren't great musicians, most would be dead or in prison. It's hard to imagine, for example, Miles Davis, functioning in any other context but music.

We've blogged about this subject in the past. The so-called "self-esteem movement" got underway in the 1970s, and was one of the first signs of the rot that would eventually pervade the discipline of psychology. Note that this movement is an exact inverted image not only of our venerable "wisdom tradition," but every wisdom tradition since man has been man.

"Humility" is not just a spiritual imperative, but a quality of sanity -- of objectivity toward oneself. In other words, if one is honest with oneself, one will naturally be humble. After all, you know all your secrets, so you, more than anyone else, have reason to be humble.

We have a right to feel good about ourselves, so long as we aren't fooling ourselves. But man has no right to ever-estimate himself, because this is a doorway to horror. Our bloodiest century -- that would be #20 -- resulted from the absurdly high self-esteem of a handful of people -- Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et al.

My son has lately developed an interest in World War II, so the other night I re-watched Saving Private Ryan with him. One comes away from the film with a sense of humility and gratitude toward those who sacrificed for a country that has given us so much. At the end, the elderly Ryan speaks for us when he says to his wife, "tell me I've lived a good life... Tell me I'm a good man!"

Conversely, imagine an Obama -- a malignant narcissist with delusional self-esteem -- who wonders instead why the country doesn't measure up to him.

Well, what have we learned this morning? I don't know. I suppose that with so little feedback, this blog will become more of an idiosyncratic, circumnavelgazing diary. I'm still on stage, performing as usual. But with just me in the audience. Boooooooooo!


Jim said...

Bob, read and appreciate your knowledge and insights every day, I don't comment anymore cause I not nearly as smart as all the other commenters.

Paul Griffin said...

I've been lurking around here since before I got married, so pushing at least 12 years now... I don't feel like every post is for me, but I read them all so I don't miss the ones that are. If it makes you feel any better, I don't talk online anywhere anymore. You've probably gotten the most commentary out of me of any site in the last 5-6 years. It would be a strange thing indeed to have this particular lamp wink out...

re: self-esteem, I suppose there's no problem with having it, but it's not something you can just hand to a person. That takes a lot of work and healing, no matter where you came from. The problem comes in when we all focus on the symptoms and the end results and try eliminate the bad symptoms and replicate the good end results without doing anything to address root causes, as if we could just hand a person high self-esteem and a bag full of money and all their problems would be solved...

You will quickly find that their apparent self esteem is of the most fragile kind and cannot bear the least scratch without seeing the person's true estimation of themselves come roaring out, and the money will disappear as quickly as it was given. Neither of these things is a kindness to the person, let alone the people around them. But the person who does the giving sure gets to feel good about themselves...

Van Harvey said...

"Hmm. I suppose the problem with so few comments is that I no longer have a sense of my audience. Or perhaps even "audience." The absence of feedback breeds a sense of isolation. Or, one can't help interpreting the seeming indifference as a form of feedback. As in silence, the deafening kind."

:-) Have you been to my place lately? Sometimes it feels like I've an audience of One. That's ok though, I hear he gives detailed reviews, but only after the show closes.

Coyote Joe Munshaw said...

Was it something I didn't say?

ted said...

This blog works well for those of us on a slow burn with type B aspirations.

Gagdad Bob said...

Coincidence. I just got a book called The World Beyond Your Head in the mail. I randomly open to page 155 and see this:

"But consider that validation through pay is a function of the prevailing political economy," which "may reflect back a distorted view of oneself. It may confer an inflated salary and corollary self-regard on some professions while placing a slight value on others, being indifferent or oblivious to the excellences these latter demand of their practitioners. Because we are social creatures and refer ourselves to others for justification, such obliviousness in the larger society may infect a man's own experience in such a way as to make it illegible to himself."

John Lien said...

Hi Bob,
I think I've missed, maybe, 30 posts in the past... heck, I can't remember how long I've been reading your blog, 7 plus years?

I came to the realization that I just couldn't add anything of substance to the conversation as I seem to be a perennial student. You know, better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than open one's mouth and remove all doubt.

I confess that I think myself rather clever and funny but others might not. I figured what was best for my fellow raccoons was to keep quiet.
Keeping quiet lead to just not reading the comments because I was no longer part of a conversation. Which reinforced itself into a multi-year silence.

However, you have enriched my life. When we are all leveled-up to our eternal existence I'm gonna shake your hand (or ectoplasmic analog) and pat you on the luminous area where your physical back used to be.

You, Father Stephen, and the Z man are my must reads.

I wish BLOGGER would install a 'like' button. Just so you know we're out there.


Anonymous said...

So, it turns out you have an audience, but we don't give much feed-back.

I note you do tend to write about the same things over and over....that could be a factor. You may have audience "burn-out." They like the style and the message, but its something you've written about many, many times, and whatever has needed to be said about it has been said.

I recommend for you, a session of deep introspection to see what other deeply regarded topics you have loaded in there. Shock us with a new direction; write us something we haven't read from you before.

A narrative regarding your early experiences in your family of origin would be fascinating, as it would lay the background story out for how you came to be the God-Loving ex leftist we have come to know and love. Tell us where you had conflict points, and how you came through. It is a lot to ask, but how about it?

Sure, I'm a troll and might send saucy feedback, but then again, do you not want feedback, even from a reader who is not necessarily sympatico 100% of the time?

A good friend is a treasure, but a good enemy is the pearl beyond price.

mdillof said...

Excellent article. Thank you. I'm just wondering if excessively high self-esteem is a defense mechanism — a reaction formation, to use Freud's lingo — against the onslaught of self-doubt and its concomitant anxiety. Perhaps, excessively high self-esteem should really be in DSM-4 as symptomatic of a personality disorder, for the person has not been able to incorporate his or her doubts into the integrity of self, in a way that it acts as a catalyst rather than a poison.

I've been thinking, apropos of the question of self-esteem, that while consumerism is, for the most part, a good thing, it might actually have darker motives. Thus, rather than judging oneself, which moral development requires, one devotes one's time to judging restaurants, judging one's professors (student course evaluations), one's auto mechanic, and all else, in our Yelpish society. Even the widespread obsession with politics, whereupon one finds the devil in the other political party — and often justifiably so — might be a defense against self-doubt, and thus a protection of one's self-esteem. It's all counter-dialectical leading to a cultural devolution.

As for the silence of your blog audience, there are probably over 100 different varieties of silence, each with its own distinctive un-sound. I suspect, that the silence that you are presently encountering from your blog audience is one of the sweeter sounds of silence, one redolent with hundreds of minds bubbling forth with insight; yes our cups runeth over, so be of good cheer my friend.

— Mark Dillof

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

I'm another long term lurker. I don't comment because I'm just not the writing type, but I always read. You have contributed more to my life than I can tell you. Thank you, and I hope for many more years of your insights.

All my best,

csanad said...

Read your blog daily. Share your columns often. Sorry for being remiss in adding feedback. It may have to do with the fact that you wrap your thoughts up so succinctly that there is nothing left to add or to criticize. Consider this audience member applauding fervently...

Gagdad Bob said...

Mark D:

Good points. Excessive self-esteem isn't exactly a reaction formation but it's usually a compensation rooted in insecurity. And in general it's always brittle, because it's not real. Conversely, a humble person doesn't have far to fall, because he's already on the ground.

As to the Yelpish society, I think it's a function of affluence in general. Any idiot can survive poverty. It remains to be seen whether human beings can survive affluence. One symptom of this is the obsession with politics. Because of affluence + irreligiosity, leftists have too much time and too little meaning, and fill the void with their crude political psychodrama.

Thanks to all the other readers for the comments. Again, I'm not really complaining. Rather, it helps to know that I'm making sense to someone else. As Davila says, "To write for posterity is not to worry whether they will read us tomorrow. It is to aspire to a certain quality of writing. Even if no one reads us." I do try to write for posterity, but sometimes I can't help wondering if I have a few pre-posterous readers already.

vanderleun said...

Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown.

And it is the summer.

And it is August
the ass end of Summer.

Unknown said...

Read your blog daily.

Just not, you know, the day that you write it. I'm slow. You're not always...easy.

I don't comment because I'm behind. But I'm here!

Gagdad Bob said...

New bylaw:

Raccoons must check in once a month with a comment.

That should solve the problem.

doug saxum said...

Checking in!

Gagdad Bob said...

We'll even sweeten the deal: checking in earns an indulgence for the forgiveness of 1 (one) venial sin, youthful indiscretion, boyish peccadillo, girlish snit, or standard parking ticket. Restrictions apply. Not valid where prohibited.

Peter Andonian said...

Hi Bob,
I have been reading for many years and share many of your insights with family and friends. I don't comment much in general. Maybe I will do a bit more! You have more influence than you think -

Gagdad Bob said...

Well, in that case, be sure and pray it forward.

Unknown said...

I discovered your book 11 years ago, then your blog a year later. I'm checking it everyday, and my response is usually the internal rumination as you continue to expand and challenge my horizons. Without your sharing, I'd be much more likely to be staring at the shadowshow at the back of the cave. Your writing re-minds me, and I'm grateful. Keep it up, and I'll be following the new law of responding at least twice a month. And Bob, . . . THANKS!!